It is this madness to explain. . . .
—John Ashbery, The Skaters (I)
The thermometer reads 5 degrees; goldfinches hang from the feeder, juncos peck at seeds on the ground. I wonder at their ability to stay warm in this weather. I know there’s a scientific explanation, but I don’t need one: it’s enough to witness it.
Recently, I sat and listened to Jeremy Irons read T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. I listened twice, the second time with a copy of the poems in my hand. Notwithstanding Irons’s too-plummy voice, I was content simply to listen to the rhythms, the sounds of the words, and absorb, as best I could, their sense.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
—Burnt Norton (I)
“Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves” reminded me of Wallace Stevens’s line, “clear water in a brilliant bowl” (The Poems of Our Climate (I)). Leave it to Eliot, I thought, to take something as elegant as a bowl of rose-leaves and let it gather dust. But of course it would, in “real life”—and, anyway, in “real life,” as Stevens wrote, “one desires so much more” than that “brilliant bowl.”
Truth be told, I’m not so fond of Eliot, the man. He was such a gloomy Gus and an odd sort in some pretty unappealing ways. I’ve not read so very much of his poetry as the title of this blog might suggest, and I certainly haven’t made a study of it. But I do recognize the brilliance of the best of it.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts.
—The Dry Salvages (V)
While skating around the Four Quartets, I learned that Eliot, in writing them, looked to Beethoven’s late string quartets for form. I also learned that this issue has been thoroughly parsed, cross-referenced, and debated. In “The Orchestration of Meaning in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,” Thomas Rees reported:
Many critics and students have come dangerously close to subscribing to the tenuous proposition that a nearly exact formal analogy exists between the structure of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and that of Beethoven’s late string quartets. [Rees 63]
Rees went on to make a number of comparisons between the formal structure of the poems and Beethoven’s string quartets, among other musical works, and concluded,
. . . by syncretically fusing several important musical and literary influences, in the composition of his poem, he was able to produce something that seems to go beyond poetry—that is, a species of writing which expands the dimensions of poetry by exploiting non-poetic devices. [Rees 69]
The phrase, “beyond poetry” is taken from Eliot, who said he wanted to write a “poetry that would be beyond poetry.” [Rees 63] I can’t help but think that Rees fashioned his conclusion to fit Eliot’s conceptual box. I’m skeptical about it all, and I guess the key thing is, for me, that analyses like this take me further away from, rather than closer to, a poem.
Who, actually, is going to be fooled one instant by these phony explanations,
Think them important? So back we go to the old, imprecise feelings, the
Common knowledge, the importance of duly suffering and the occasional glimpses
Of some balmy felicity. The world of Schubert’s lieder.
—Ashbery, The Skaters (I).
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy discovering something of how a poem or a musical work is composed. It’s this compulsion to pick things apart (“we murder to dissect”), most often with relentlessly linear logic: it seems antithetical to the way a great poem—or a great piece of music—moves.
I’m sympathetic with Eliot’s yearning for a poetry beyond poetry, though. I don’t know the context in which he said it, but I’m somehow reminded of Rabindranath Tagore’s On My Birthday—20
In my mind I imagine words thus shot of their meaning,
Hordes of them running amuck all day,
As if in the sky there were nonsense nursery syllables booming—
Horselum, bridelum, ridelum, into the fray.
Well, what Eliot intended probably wasn’t quite so fanciful, but in East Coker (V), he did write this:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
In that last line, particularly, there’s a lesson for us all. I just wish Eliot could have lightened up a bit.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
—Wordsworth, The Tables Turned
Listening List: More Than Four Quartets
For a playlist on Spotify that includes all the string quartets listed below, click here.
Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet No. 14, Opus 131 (1826)
“Free from any considerations a commission might have imposed, in the String Quartet in C-sharp minor Beethoven moved further away from the conventions of quartet-writing than he had ever done before. An external sign of this is the layout in seven movements, played without a break-certainly a major departure from the norms that leaves the listener totally unable to predict the course the work will take at the next turn. But form in Beethoven is always inseparable from content, and the revolutionary structure of this quartet was made necessary by the exceptional emotional range of what Beethoven had to say.” To read more, click here.
Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 1, 1st Movement (Lento) (1909)
“’. . . each player is considered as an individual, with his own strand of the fabric; this autonomy brings about a textural richness comparable to the last quartets of Beethoven….’
“Thus, in the first movement, Bartók pays homage to the fugal opening of Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, even going so far as to develop separate notions, as Beethoven does, from the fugue’s four parts. Extreme rhythmic tension, and the most free tonality, hallmarks of Bartók’s later quartets, are also procedural elements here . . .”. To read more, click here.
Benjamin Britten String Quartet No. 2, 1st Movement (Allegro Calmo) (1945)
“The quartet is in three movements, and it is original from its first instant. Rather than adopting a standard sonata form, which opposes and contrasts material, Britten builds the opening Allegro calmo, senza rigore on three themes, all of which are announced in the first few measures and all of which are similar: all three themes begin with the upward leap of a tenth.” To read more, click here.
Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet No. 6, First Movement (1956)
“The quartet begins, characteristically, in a pure diatonic innocence – the two violins play radiantly in thirds – that soon develops signs of strain and becomes increasingly fraught. Unusually for Shostakovich, the second subject is correctly in the dominant; it is another simple tune, whose phrases are set off by cadences. Pulsation from the first violin covers the move into the development, which begins with the second violin and viola reintroducing the main theme, tonally estranged.” To read more, click here.
Jefferson Friedman String Quartet No. 3, Introduction (2005)
Friedman’s entire string quartet may be found here.
“The No. 3 Quartet’s brief movements (first and third) enclose a longer central movement entitled ‘Act’. Both the first and third movements open with long, insistent, crescendo phrases. But while the first movement is “in your face” with aggressive ostinatos, the third movement is quiet, eventually settling on a major triad. . . .
“Is Friedman’s C major resolution in this [Act] movement of the No. 3 quartet a ‘mistake’? . . . . I, for one, do not think it is ‘easy’ or a ‘mistake’ any more than I think the major-key resolutions in much baroque music were ‘easy’ or ‘mistakes’.” To read more, click here.
John Adams String Quartet, First Movement, Part 1
First Movement, Part 2, may be found here.
The String Quartet, wrote David Nice, “had all the urgency and at times anguish of Janáček’s two quartets as well as the unpredictability of Beethoven’s later labyrinths. . . . yes, another masterpiece.” To read more, click here.